What Is Small Dog Syndrome?

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A small white dog lays in its owners arms, with a bright and happy expression

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Is your small dog misbehaving and not listening to you? Do your friends joke that your little friend is “a big character trapped in a little body”? If so, it might be their polite way of telling you that your little dog has “small dog syndrome”. Although small dog syndrome isn’t a scientifically defined thing, it’s certainly something we, as veterinarians, recognise in the clinic, as do lots of owners of these mini canines.

Small dog syndrome is a set of behaviours that include things like:

  • Jumping up at people.

  • Lunging and barking at people, other dogs and objects like pushchairs.

  • Being disobedient or ignoring their owners.

  • Aggression, e.g. snapping, growling or nipping.

  • Jumping on furniture.

  • Reluctance to walk on a lead.

Lots of people tolerate, or even come to expect, these behaviours from small dogs, yet we wouldn’t tolerate them in larger dogs. As such, much of this behaviour may be down to subtle things that we, as owners, reinforce because we don’t treat our small dogs the same as if they were big dogs. Here are a couple of examples of how this can happen…

Let’s say you’re out walking and you see a bigger dog. You may have the urge to pick up your little dog in case they get hurt, but your dog will sense your anxiety and learn that meeting a bigger dog is a cause for concern. Constant reinforcement can create fear and aggression every time the situation arises, and the mentality can quickly become ingrained. In time, the small dog will start to pre-empt these situations by growling and barking before anything has even happened.

And then there’s the “little and cute” factor! If a large dog jumps up at people or lunges, it’s frightening and might be considered dangerous, even if the dog is being friendly, so the behaviour gets corrected and addressed from a very young age. But a cute little pup nipping at your ankles? Well, this is often seen as fairly harmless in comparison, so the little dog quite simply gets away with things that a bigger dog wouldn’t. Much like a spoiled child, they learn that they can do whatever they like without repercussions.

What can you do about small dog syndrome?

As with so many things in life, prevention is better than cure. Pick your puppy wisely, and look closely at the behaviour of the parents and how the puppies react to you at a young age. When you get your puppy home, talk to your vet about socialisation classes so that your puppy can safely meet all sizes of dogs and different kinds of people, and learn that interacting with them is not a cause for concern. Try to imagine your dog is the size of a Labrador. Would you want them jumping on your lap, or leaping up and snapping at someone walking down the street, or not coming back when they are called? No!

Good training, socialisation and habituation are essential for all our canine companions so that they can be happy, well-adjusted members of our families, no matter their size. It’s better for your dog too. They will feel calmer and less anxious in the long run if they have consistent rules and boundaries from the word go. But remember to always use positive reward-based training to encourage the behaviour you want, rather than punishing what you don’t like.

If your little friend is already showing signs of small dog syndrome, get help sooner rather than later. Behavioural issues can be corrected, but the longer they are left, the harder it is. Always ask your vet to recommend a qualified animal behaviourist. This field is largely unregulated in many countries, so make sure you’re seeing an expert, and never tolerate negative, punishment-based training advice.

Little dogs don’t have to have small dog syndrome and can make great companions and loving members of your family. And you, as their owner, carer or pet parent can play a big part in making this happen.

Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA